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Sean Cocco. Watching Vesuvius: A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy.

Sean Cocco. Watching Vesuvius: A History of Science and Culture in Early Modern Italy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Since the destructive eruption of AD 79, Vesuvius has been a captivating and epitomic symbol not only for Neapolitans but also for many scientists and erudite observers. Similarly, the eruption of 1631 had overwhelming repercussions on the slopes of the volcano bringing many inhabitants to flee towards the sea and the city of Naples and taking many viewers or researchers to discern the naturalistic phenomena.

Cocco sensibly positions Vesuvius scientific reports throughout the early modern historical and literary context from the historian point of view to the expression of human attitudes in connection with nature. The three leitmotifs of cultural observations, symbolic form of Vesuvius, and natural history of volcanology are represented in the introduction through the mediated epistemological commentaries from naturalists. The 1600's volcanic observations are shaped as an identity for the city of Naples and its inhabitants within a European imaging.

The eruptions of Vesuvius contributed to the interpretation of scientific causes and elucidations. In 1638, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher undertook a journey to the south of Italy and Malta. During his journey, Kircher had observed mount Etna and the isle of Stromboli; however, when he ascended mount Vesuvius he envisaged, in his volume Mundus subterraneous, the underground turmoil as the movement of earth's burning core.

The theories advanced from Aristotelian philosophy had brought Ristoro D'Arezzo during the 1280's to observe in his Composizione del Mondo that the astral mutability finds acting "above and below the earth." Later during the Renaissance, many naturalists followed the disposition of Georg Agricola when in his De Ortu Causis Subterraneum (1546) explicated that scientific clarification of earth's phenomena was needed. Fabrizio Padovani correspondingly to Agricola believed "volcanoes as geographical and historical toponyms" (31).

Vesuvius observers during the sixteenth century were underscoring the natural landscape and fertility of the surrounding land of Naples including the humanist and poet Giovanni Pontano and Joris Hoefnagel who painted Vesuvius as surrounding part of the fortified and tranquil city of Naples.

Throughout Watching Vesuvius, Cocco references numerous physicians, philosophers, and historians including Antonio Caracciolo, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, Giuseppe Valletta, Giovanni Maria della Torre, Deodat Dolomieu, William Hamilton, and Ferdinando Galiani among others. In 1599, Ferrante Imperato, a Neapolitan apothecary and naturalist, in the Historia naturale included an in-depth image of nature and also a more sophisticated theory of causes of volcanism. In Imperato's estimation, fires underground in the presence of sulfur, alum and bitumen alimented the combustion and noted "there are some places that for a long period of time show no sign of flame, and then after a long rest hugely powerful fires burst forth from them. Such a place is our mount Vesuvius" (89).

Nevertheless, seems that Giulio Cesare Braccini and Pietro Castelli are the focal points for scientific descriptions for the destructive eruption of 1631. In fact, Braccini, an abbot from Lucca, had come to Vesuvius with the intention of descending into the crater, as he had learned Stefano Pighio had done a decade before. However, he only peered over the crater and still acknowledges that there was gas and vapor produced by never extinguished fires launching upward "some smoke, some vapor or flicker" (58). Pietro Castelli recorded the eruption of 1631 in his L'Incendio del Monte Vesuvio (1632). Although an historian and botanist, Cocco abodes Castelli as a contributor to the empiricism and science together with social contribution between other observes during the seventeenth century.

While Vesuvius continued to erupt throughout the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, the eruption of 1631 seems to be the junction between the naturalists' views from Renaissance and the following early "volcanologists" perspectives.

Cocco augments his text on early history of science with the political and intellectual background of the time addressing a greater audience. Members and associates of the Circolo degli Oziosi were historians, intellectuals and reformists, comprising Camillo Tutini, who appear to have supported the symbolic connection between naturalistic and historical landscape of Naples.

The structure of Watching Vesuvius by thematic views, such as philosophical or political loci, creates chronological perplexity by redundant references. However, the illustrations in Cocco's text certainly enrich the scientific perspectives of geology in early modern history.


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Author:Iacovella, Anna
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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